When China rules the world

By John Sexton
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, December 12, 2009
Adjust font size:

What will the consequences of China's rise be? Jacques gives the world plenty to worry about. Under a veneer of communist ideology, he believes the Chinese state and society have remained essentially unchanged since Imperial times. In particular, both rulers and people have inherited a "Middle Kingdom mentality" forged over the centuries when China dominated East Asia, and outlying "barbarians" traveled to the capital to pay tribute and kowtow to the Emperor. Will China transpose old habits to the world stage and use its economic muscle to reconstruct a modern version of the tributary system? Jacques claims to see hints of such a development in PRC relations with its smaller neighbors and trading partners.

Even more worrying is that Jacques claims to have detected a powerful strain of racism and feelings of racial superiority running through Chinese, indeed East Asian society as a whole. This is partly based on Jacques' own experience, and indeed widespread popular prejudice against people with dark skins, and Africans in particular, can be quickly confirmed by almost any observant traveler. There is also a deep-rooted ideal of beauty which means that in China until recently it was almost impossible to buy sun-block that did not contain skin lightener. Jacques also points to articles in Chinese learned journals and the popular press that aim to refute the now almost universally-held "Out of Africa" theory of human evolution.

Should we be worried? There are many countervailing forces to traditionalism in Chinese society. One is the vast numbers of returnees who have been educated in America and elsewhere over recent decades. A younger generation that believes it has "seen the future and it works" has colonized ministries and influential think tanks. China's "Westernizers" intellectually outgun by far the modern equivalent of its "Slavophiles". Jacques also fails to give sufficient weight to China's huge new working class, the largest in the world, which is streaming to the cities and abandoning rural life and its age-old traditions. While unlikely to fall in with the Westernizers, these new urban residents are no more likely to represent a traditionalist force.

The perception that racism is particularly prevalent in China may be an illusion of Westerners attuned to living in multicultural societies exposed to decades of government education programs that have expelled vulgar prejudice from polite society. Despite Jacques' occasional careless use of the word "race," the various ethnic groups and nationalities of China and East Asia are physically virtually indistinguishable. Western tourists in China may be charmed or annoyed by prolonged stares and giggles, but these are a reaction to unfamiliarity rather than signs of a Boxer mentality. The dissenters from the Out of Africa theory turn out to be a few archaeologists in Nanjing and Wuhan who have devoted their lives to the fossil record of early man in China. Chinese geneticists are wholly in agreement with the DNA evidence that underpins the Out of Africa theory. This is not to say the Chinese government does not have a mountain to climb to educate its citizens about racial prejudice. But starting late has never been a barrier to success in China. The important thing is to find the political will.

Martin Jacques has written an excellent popular book on China, which is exactly what the world needs if it is to understand and engage with the Chinese, as it increasingly must. Professional Sinologists have been rather sniffy about it because Jacques does not speak Chinese, but it is always open to them to write something better. Unfortunately, Western university grants systems keep their noses firmly stuck in obscure research projects that yield books nobody reads. The days are long gone since John King Fairbank and others wrote their magisterial histories, more is the pity. In the meantime, Martin Jacques has helped fill the gap.

   Previous   1   2  

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share


No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
Send your storiesGet more from China.org.cnMobileRSSNewsletter